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Friday, May 31, 2019

Listening to Macca #5: Wings Errata, McCartney II, and Tug of War

I want to begin this entry with a rethinking of some of my comments last month, as I finished up McCartney's musical history with Wings. I'm not taking any of it back, but I feel like some additional context is necessary. Partly this is because of Tom Doyle's Man on the Run, which I read this month and thought was a pretty wonderful series of reflections on Macca in the 1970s. That book gave me some insight into McCartney's terribly conflicted feelings about the break-up of the Beatles, and the combination of immaturity, resentment, and heartache that accompanied the legal wranglings and sniping which followed in its wake. What does that have to do with Wings? Simply that I think Doyle's thesis is a persuasive one: Wings was, from its stumbling beginning to its anti-climactic end, inseparable from Paul's alternately generous, demanding, doubtful, adventurous, and (unfortunately, far too often) pot-beclouded efforts at trying to figure out how to be an ex-Beatle. It makes me more convinced than ever that Wings really could have taken flight beyond the brief Band on the Run-Venus and Mars-Wings at the Speed of Sound run from 1973 to 1976, given a few different breaks. There was frequently genius in there; the fact that McCartney was able--in the midst of decisions that were often clumsyand self-centered--to come out of the world of experience that was the Beatles and still create some pretty wonderful pop-rock music ("Get on the Right Thing," "Let Me Roll With It," "Junior's Farm," "Magneto and Titanium Man," "Beware My Love," to say nothing of all his other hits) is something that, in itself, deserves applause.

The other part of it is that I realized, in wrapping up my attempt at a comprehensive listening to Wings, that I'd nonetheless missed one of that band's final, great tunes, "Goodnight Tonight," which was left off of Back to the Egg. (Doyle has a nice snark about the fact that Macca continued to insist upon releasing promotional singles that were left off the albums they were nominally a part of all the way through the end of the 1970s, even though the economy of record sales had completely changed by then.) I wouldn't make a big deal about this, except that "Goodnight Tonight" is not only a terrific pop concoction, but is really one of the best examples McCartney's tremendous skill with the bass from his entire career, and that deserves mentioning. I mean, the flamenco guitar licks are great, the disco beat is groovy, but really, it's the bass line that makes the song. And one thing which Doyle's book didn't do enough of, in the midst of all its observations about McCartney's doubts and decisions and drug habits, was to talk about Macca as a musician, as a talented instrumentalist who loves to just play. When he did, he was one of the best bass players from the whole formative pop-rock era of the 1960s and 1970s, I think.

Anyway, enough of that. On to McCartney's first two post-Wings albums.

Having got my wish to give McCartney and Wings their proper due out of the way, allow me to admit that I think McCartney II kind of stinks. Like the first McCartney, this album was recorded almost entirely solo, with Paul, feeling bored and frustrated with Wings, just playing around with synthesizers, drum machines, and everything else that was changing pop music in 1979. I can understand that--and it's not as though anything that he came up with and decided to release on this album is actually bad. Just mostly simplistic, incomplete, and kind of pointless. He's having fun with the synths on "Temporary Secretary," "Front Parlour," and "Frozen Jap," and sure, he comes up with some cool beats there--but honestly, you'd be pleasantly surprised, but not shocked, to hear your kid in high school orchestra came up with the exact same thing on the keyboards one Saturday. You expect more than some skilled teen-age noodling from McCartney. Yes, "Waterfalls" has its defenders--McCartney definitely among them--but it's an undeveloped tune, one that needed some push-back from someone. "Coming Up" is the only fully realized song on the album, and it's pretty good, but unlike "Maybe I'm Amazed" on McCartney, it isn't enough on its own to lift this album above the D grade it deserves.

Tug of War, on the other hand, is wonderful, an album as good as Band on the Run, maybe even better. This was Paul working with ex-Beatles for the first time: Ringo is on the drums, and George Martin producing, and it shows--there is a Beatlesesque shine to the album, a tightness that McCartney never seemed to be able to do on his own (at least, not by this point in his career, anyway). "Take it Away" is the album's masterpiece--a witty, groovy, reflective, and utterly infectious celebration of the music business, one of the best I know of from the whole history of pop music, up there with Jackson Browne's "Load Out" or Robyn Hitchcock's "Mr. Kennedy." (The single's B-side, "I'll Give You a Ring" is quite good, a charming throwback to the Macca of "When I'm Sixty-Four" or "Honey Pie," and one that should have been on the album, as it's a great companion to the album's equally fine, equally "granny" song, "Ballroom Dancing.") In totally different veins, "Here Today" is a plaintive, folky tribute to John (written not long after his murder), "What's That You're Doing?" is a glorious slice of electronica-funk (and a dozen times better than the other duet with Stevie Wonder on the album, the innocuous "Ebony and Ivory"), "The Pound is Sinking" is a clever medley of 70s rock tropes, and if "Tug of War" is an earnest rock anthem that perhaps tries a bit too hard, "Wanderlust" is a brassy pop anthem that hits it out of the park. (It, along with "What's That You're Doing?," should have been monster hits along with "Take it Away.") And I have to mention "Get It," a solid rockabilly number with Carl Perkins that, had it been released 25 years earlier, would have sounded just perfect on AM radio. So, in other words, a great album, with only a couple of bumps along the way (the disco beats on "Dress Me Up Like a Robber" are a little much, I think). A solid A- for Sir Paul, as he threw himself onward and upward into the 1980s.


alkali said...

Man on the Run is, oddly, one of the most interesting books I have read on the Beatles. The narrative of screaming teens at Shea Stadium is one thing but the existential question of what you do when you are in your late 20s and that crazy run has come to an end is to me much more interesting.

Continue to enjoy this series.

Russell Arben Fox said...

Agreed, Alkali. It was the second history of a portion of McCartney's life I've read this year, and it was much better than I expected it to be, a really thoughtful posing--in the midst of telling what most would probably consider a "typical" pop star's story--of the problem of having success, money, and talent, but no obvious direction to make use of it. Anyway, glad you like the posts!